Industrial Revolution Editorial Essay

I am neither for nor against temping (or consulting, or freelancing).

Likewise, when we talk about today’s economy, we focus on smartphones, artificial intelligence, apps.

Here, too, the inexorable march of technology is thought to be responsible for disrupting traditional work, phasing out the employee with a regular wage or salary and phasing in independent contractors, consultants, temps and freelancers — the so-called gig economy. The history of labor shows that technology does not usually drive social change.

But services like Uber and online freelance markets like Task Rabbit were created to take advantage of an already independent work force; they are not creating it.

Their technology is solving the business and consumer problems of an already insecure work world. It’s worth stressing that the “technology” of temp work — and the possibility of replacing entire work forces with it — existed for years before corporations made the decision to start adopting it.

It is the severing of obligations between businesses and employees.

It is the collapse of the protections that the people of the United States, in our laws and our customs, once fought hard to enshrine.When we learn about the Industrial Revolution in school, we hear a lot about factories, steam engines, maybe the power loom.We are taught that technological innovation drove social change and radically reshaped the world of work.For some, the rise of the gig economy represents liberation from the stifled world of corporate America.But for the vast majority of workers, the “freedom” of the gig economy is just the freedom to be afraid.Yet terms like “small” and “efficient” and “flexible” would come to seem like synonyms.And with the rise of the lean corporation, work forces became expendable and jobs more precarious.But persuading companies to abandon how they operated was easier said than done, even though Winter could readily demonstrate that it would be cheaper. Higher profits were possible, but not as important, in the lingering wake of the Great Depression, as the moral compact between employer and employee. The emergence in the 1970s of a new, strictly financial view of corporations, a philosophy that favored stock and bond prices over production, of short-term gains over long-term investment.Theories of “lean” corporate organization became popular, especially those sold by management consultants and business gurus.This was a necessary precondition for the Industrial Revolution.While factory technology would consolidate this development, the creation of factory technology was possible only because people’s relationship to work had already changed.


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